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Opera isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time; the Virginia Opera’s production of Aida is a reminder as to why that is. Giuseppe Verdi’s tale of a love triangle at the center of a conflict between ancient Egypt and Ethiopia can be a lot of things: war spectacle, costume pageant, political drama. In the hands of the Virginia Opera, it’s mostly just dull.
Now granted, this thing is nearly three hours long, and by Act 4 I was drawing pictures of dinosaurs in my notebook, so I may very well have missed something cool. But why wait that long? Especially when we know we in America can do better. Sophisticated readers will recall the popular Broadway musical of the same name by Elton John and Tim Rice, on which Verdi’s opera is apparently based.
Aida tells of the doomed romance between Radames, an Egyptian military officer, and the play’s namesake, an Ethiopian princess and slave to the king’s daughter Amneris, who in turn loves Radames. War breaks out between the two kingdoms over who knows what, and Radames is drafted to lead the troops into battle against the “barbaric Ethiopians.” He returns victorious and begs the king to spare the enemy soldiers he took prisoner, including Amonasro, father of his beloved Aida. The spurned Amneris schemes to destroy their love while Amonasro schemes to destroy Egypt. Bad things happen to our heroes who, long story short, wind up being buried alive together. (In the superior Broadway version, the reincarnated Radames and Aida happily meet again at a present-day museum exhibition.)
OK, so I checked and technically Verdi came first. In any case, stagings of Aida tend to be larger-than-life, stadium events involving lavish sets and a menagerie of exotic animals. Obviously George Mason’s Center for the Arts doesn’t have the facilities for a herd of elephants, but this production was especially modest. Most noticeable was the ugly set design, consisting entirely of giant triangles of corrugated paper (representing the pyramids? I guess) which did nothing but obstruct the stage action. The costumes were more inspired, thought often incongruous—-why is Amneris wearing a hot pink dress? Radames spends most of the opera in a gold lamé bathrobe and lustrous wig, looking like a coke dealer from Boogie Nights. Argentine tenor Gustavo Lopez Manzitti is decent in the role although, looking to be about 50, doesn’t quite fit the part of the “fearless young warrior” chosen to lead the Egyptian army.
Soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams, as Aida, was the bright spot of the opera. Her voice is open, warm, and gentle on the ears, eliciting natural sympathy for her sad character. Mezzo-soprano Jeniece Goldbourne, playing the ambitious and spiteful Amneris, has a more chipped and strident intonation with too much vibrato: also character-appropriate although I’m not so sure this is deliberate. The chorus, for its part, was uneven; one tenor noticeably stuck out above the rest.
The other bright spot was the dancers, courtesy of the Richmond Ballet, who came on stage to spice things up whenever the opera dragged, which was often. Trotting out ballet dancers wearing loincloths and miniskirt shendyts was totally gratuitous, particularly when they weren’t dancing but standing around looking toned. It was also totally welcome. Maybe the Virginia Opera can look into getting the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders for their February production of Philip Glass’ Orphée.
Director Lillian Groag deserves credit for not turning Aida into an oversimplified racial conflict as do many other productions, perpetuating the myth of “white” Egyptians versus “black” Ethiopians. She instead uses a multiracial cast for both sides. The opera’s portrayal of the Egyptians as the aggressors actually obscures the fact that Verdi was commissioned to write it by the viceroy of Egypt, Ismail the Magnificent (Verdi almost didn’t take the job until Ismail hinted he would hire Wagner instead).
Aida ends its run at GMU this weekend, as per the Virginia Opera’s touring schedule. The originally Norfolk-based company is by now a statewide institution, and all of its productions play sequentially in Norfolk, Richmond, and Fairfax. New Virginia Opera CEO Russell Allen, last seen in these pages as executive director of the Washington Ballet, introduced Friday’s performance with high praise. But the sensory experience was underwhelming—-not so bad for a simpler opera, but a grave sin for Aida. It is said that Verdi was a big Elton John fan. Certainly he would have hoped for something more glam.
Aida closes on Sunday, October 16 at 2:00 pm at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, 4400 University Dr., Fairfax. $48 – $98. (888) 945-2468.